Friday, 15 November 2013

How I Built a House On a Desert Isle



How I Built a House On a Desert Isle
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Boys’ Life magazine, February 1915. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Nov. 2013. This article is essentially the contents of Chapter 5 of An American Crusoe. This is the only story that has been located from this magazine though many advertisements and book reviews appear. The full chapter appears below.

WHAT would you do if you were cast up on an uninhabited island with nothing to start life with but a pocket knife? Mr. A. Hyatt Verrill has chosen such a situation for a new book called “An American Crusoe” recently published by Dodd, Mead & Company, of New York.
Mr. Verrill spent considerable time on an island in the West Indies as a member of a natural history expedition. He assures his readers that most of the feats which he describes were actually attempted and performed.
In the following extract from this book reprinted through courtesy of the author and the publishers, Mr. Verrill tells how he built a house.

ONLY a suitable dwelling was now needed to make my castaway life not only bearable, but quite comfortable.
A wooden, or log, house was, I knew, impracticable, for to cut the logs or trees with only a pocket knife would be the work of many weeks, or even months, not to mention the liability of breaking the knife or wearing it out.
To be sure, I might burn off the trees and afterwards cut them up by the same process, but this I also knew would require a long time to accomplish, and meanwhile the rainy season would have arrived. Moreover, such a building would last but a short time, owing to the ravages of wood-ants and in a severe storm or hurricane would be of little protection, if merely lashed together—the only means of fastening at my command.
A stone house would answer, but to obtain a sufficient number of large stones and carry them to one spot would require an amount of labour beyond the power of one man to accomplish.
Thinking over this matter and considering it from every point of view, I raked apart the coals of my fire to light my pipe and inadvertently pushed my wooden poker against a bit of rock. Much to my surprise, it at once crumbled to bits and I realised that I had hit upon the solution to my house problem. The island was a mass of coral limestone and I had only to burn this to lime, form it into mortar or concrete, and build my house easily.
To think was to act and I began piling brush, sticks, and dead branches against the side of a ledge in a sheltered spot a hundred yards inland and near the abandoned water tank.
This was a situation I had long since chosen as a dwelling site, for it was thoroughly sheltered by large trees, was centrally located and convenient to my various provision grounds and to the signal hill, and moreover was on a rising knoll which would be dry even in the rainiest weather.
I had already travelled back and forth so many times across the island that a number of paths had been worn, and with a little additional cutting and clearing a good open road could be made to the beach.
My pile of brush and trash complete, I brought one of the lamps to the spot and soon the mass was a roaring fire, with its hot flames licking up the side of the ledge for several feet.
The limestone rapidly cracked and flaked off, exposing the fresh, white surface beneath, and all through the day I kept the fire roaring.
The following morning I found the fire dead and cold, and by means of an improvised broom of cocoanut leaves I raked and brushed away the ashes and gathered my largest turtle shell full of lime.
Only stopping to eat and attend to my fish trap and replenish the oil in my lamps, I kept the fire going brightly for several days and soon had a great accumulation of lime of excellent quality. I now thought it time to test the building properties of my material and attempted mixing it with salt water and sand. It slaked well and mixed up in a most satisfying way and, pleased at the result, I placed a number of stones in the form of a low wall and set them in the fresh mortar. By the time this was accomplished it was very late and I left further operations for another day.
The next morning I hurried to my foundation, expecting to find the rocks firmly set in their bed of lime. Imagine my chagrin on discovering that the mortar was dry and powdery and crumbled at a touch. Although greatly cast down at this, I decided that it must be due to some fault in mixing, for I was sure the lime itself was of good quality.
Determined to experiment until I hit upon the proper proportions, I commenced cleaning out the turtle shell in which the mortar had been mixed the previous day. As I scraped the crumbling material from the shell I noticed that the lime adhering to it along the edges and back was exceedingly hard and firm and resisted all efforts to dislodge it. This seemed quite strange and unaccountable, until I remembered stories of some early castaways in Bermuda who used lime and turtle blood for cement to caulk a boat.
Evidently the blood and grease in the shell had been softened by the water mixed with my lime and had formed the hard, cementlike substance.
Here, then, was an easy way out of my difficulty, for if blood and grease formed a cement with lime I had all the materials readily at my disposal.
Turtles still came to the Key nightly to deposit their eggs, and while previously I had caught only enough to supply me with meat, yet I was sure that I could catch a score or more with little effort.
The blood from even this number would hardly suffice to mix enough cement with which to construct a house, and I spent some time cudgelling my brains to find some plan by which I could turn my timely discovery to advantage.
Finally I decided to build the walls of logs, rocks, and branches, forming a sort of wattled construction, and strengthen and reinforce the whole by cement.
Working along these lines, I spent the day in gathering and placing the materials, and by nightfall had a foundation two feet in height and six by eight feet square. That evening I walked about the beaches searching for turtle and before daylight I had three fine, big specimens safely on their backs in the shade and covered over with palm leaves and seaweed. I knew that, if freshly covered each day, that the creatures would live for several weeks, and, as I had no method of preserving the blood, I decided to keep them alive and kill them as needed.
The blood and grease from one of the creatures was carefully gathered in nut shells and, with some fear of failure, I mixed it with a quantity of lime. I found the mass far too sticky and thick to mix thoroughly and I was obliged to thin it out with water. I had some doubts as to the practicability of this, but, judging from the action of the dried blood on the lime previously mixed, I decided that only a very small quantity of blood was required to make durable cement.
By the time the lime and blood had been thinned to a fair, mortar-like consistency, I had obtained two shells full and spent several busy hours of hard, hot work plastering it over the low wall of branches and stones I had erected.
I was thoroughly fatigued by the time I had used up the cement and, in fact, it was by far the hardest day's work I had undertaken since being cast away. I thought a rest well earned and spent the afternoon in the shade of the trees, but I was by no means idle, for my clothing was now worn to mere rags and repeated patching and tying was of little avail and constant repairing was necessary.
My rude bark sandals had long since been replaced by low, moccasin-like slippers, plaited from strips of palm leaves, and while these lasted but a short time, yet I had little difficulty in making new ones as I needed them.
This afternoon I examined my clothing over and over again, trying to think up some substitute, for, although I would not suffer from cold, even if naked, the brush and thorns would tear my skin and flesh cruelly, while with the arrival of the rainy season some manner of protection would be necessary from the torrential rains and heavy winds.
I finally concluded that plaited cocoanut fibre, or leaves, would have to serve for my covering, but how to make this material into anything resembling clothes was a problem quite beyond me. I could readily plait fibre, or leaves, into straight, or square, or even round, mats and had already spent many hours in weaving rude baskets, hats, and the shoes mentioned.
All these things were merely tied or lashed, together and I could devise no other means of making the plaited strips into garments. While thinking over this matter and meanwhile braiding some palm leaves together, my eye chanced to light on a group of the wild Yuccas, or "Spanish Bayonets," growing near at hand. The sharp spines at the ends of the leaves of this plant had often wounded me severely and the thought crossed my mind that these thorns might be utilised as pins to fasten clothing together.
To satisfy myself I cut one of the thick, fleshy leaves and attempted to break off the spine. It was firmly attached to the leaf, but after some effort I managed to tear it from the pulp and found that it bore a number of long fibres fastened to its base. These were so strong and tough that they resisted all my strength and I was about to cut them free from the thorn when their resemblance to a threaded needle burst upon me. Here again I had come, by the merest chance, upon one of the most useful of Nature's provisions for man's needs, for the terminal spine of the Yucca—with the leaf fibres adhering—forms as perfect a needle and thread as one could wish for.
I found that by its use I could easily stitch leaves, plaits, or even thin bark and I was soon busy forming a sort of rough suit from plaited leaves.
Darkness came on while still occupied at this task and it was with deep regret that I was compelled to lay it aside.
The morning found me hurrying to my cemented wall, and I was mightily pleased to find that the cement had set to rocky hardness and that protruding sticks and branches could not be dislodged or broken from the mass.
As soon as breakfast was finished I set to work with a will to build a second tier of branches and cement, and by nightfall had erected a wall breast-high completely around the enclosed rectangular space.
Much to my chagrin, a heavy rain set in at sundown and it poured off and on all night. I felt certain that my day's work would be ruined and the cement washed away and I spent a miserable night, soaked by the rain, troubled and worried over the loss of my labour and material.
The weather cleared with daybreak and all my shell reservoirs were full and running over with water. I made my way with trepidation to the wall I had formed with so much effort and was ready to shout with joy when I found the cement had hardened perfectly, even though soaked by the rain.
Evidently my cement was perfectly hydraulic in character and I had no further cause to fear rainy days.
My supply of lime and turtle blood was now exhausted and the next few days were spent in alternately gathering building material, burning lime, and searching for turtles at night. These animals had now become scarce and I succeeded in finding less than half a dozen, where formerly as many could have been taken in a few hours.
As my wall was still far from completed and as turtles were so scarce, I determined to use less blood and grease and more water, and in order to discover just how much water I could safely use I spent an entire day mixing small batches of cement with varying quantities of water and blood. The result of this experimental work proved that a very small amount of blood and grease was essential to harden the cement sufficiently for my purposes and I was certain that by thus diluting the material I would be able to finish the walls.
There is no necessity of describing the work in detail, for the following week or ten days was spent in ceaseless work, until at last the walls were built to a height of seven feet, with one wall a foot higher than the others. In the upper edges of the walls I set stout branches, projecting upward for a couple of feet, and to these I lashed sections of Trumpet-tree branches to serve as roof timbers.
The lashings, and all other fastenings, were made of twisted and braided cocoanut fibre which I obtained by rotting the husks in the wet mud of the flats and drying in the sun— a trick familiar to all who have resided long in the Antilles.
To make the lashings even more secure I daubed them over with cement and, having still a few quarts of the material remaining, I painted all exposed timbers with a good coating.
For a roof to my new house I used palm leaves—dipping them in salt water to prevent the ravages of insects—plaiting the edges together and lashing each edge to the timbers to hold them in place. Not thoroughly content with this, I laid layer after layer of the leaves over the roof and bound them down in a mass by strips of the Trumpet-tree wood lashed to the timbers at either side.
The roof completed, I found the dwelling quite cosy, for while the lack of windows made the interior rather dark, yet the roof being placed two feet above the wall-top allowed plenty of ventilation and the projecting eaves prevented rain from beating in and cast quite a wide shelter beyond the walls.
The building was scarcely finished Before the summer rains set in in earnest, and indeed I had been greatly surprised that they had not commenced before, for it was now well into August and, as a rule, the rainy season is well advanced by the middle of June or early in July.
It must not be supposed that it was continually raining during the rainy season—an erroneous idea that many people have in regard to this season in the tropics. In reality the West Indian summer, or rainy season, is merely more rainy than the dry season. The heavy showers seldom last more than a day without clearing and, as a rule, they continue but a few hours, with bright sunshine and clear skies between whiles. It is during this season, however, that severe squalls, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other dangerous disturbances occur, and consequently the rainy season is the time of greatest danger to mariners and dwellers in exposed situations.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.